This weekend marks President’s Day in the US. My undergraduate children’s literature students are spending the weekend finding a children’s book that details a US president’s interaction with people of color, because I wanted them to see what and who we do and don’t celebrate in this country. However, I thought I would give the theme of presidents a miss this year; this weekend also marks the birthdays of two radical Black women visionaries, Toni Morrison and Audre Lorde, so I thought I’d celebrate them by looking at a Black woman artist who, like Morrison and Lorde, asked us to change the way that we see the world.
I began thinking about this because on Friday, Buffalo’s art museum, the Albright-Knox, had a free opening evening for their new exhibit, “We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women, 1965-1985” (https://www.albrightknox.org/art/exhibitions/we-wanted-revolution-black-radical-women). I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibit, but for me, seeing Faith Ringgold’s activism and art contextualized put a new spin on how I understood her work for children. A highlight of the exhibition is Ringgold’s 1971 mural, For the Women’s House. The mural, which was painted for the women’s correctional facility on Riker’s Island in New York City, strikes the viewer long before she knows the story behind it. A set of triangular panels formed into a square (similar to a quilt block, for which kind of art Ringgold is also known) show women of all races and ages working, creating, teaching and supporting one another. Although the women mostly look directly out at the viewer, the mural is not confrontational; the women appear strong and calm. According to the explanatory panel, the lack of confrontation is purposeful. “In an April 1972 interview with her daughter, writer Michele Wallace, Ringgold described her goals for the piece: ‘If I hadn’t done it for the Women’s House then it probably would have been more political; but these women have been rejected by society; they are the blood guilt of society, so if this is what I give them, then maybe that is what we should all have.’” The canvas may not have been aggressive—given that it was painted in 1971, Ringgold could have focused on many of the difficult political moments of the prior five years in the US—but it was (and is) political. The idea that all women should have satisfying work that gives them the financial support and time to be creative and look after (and be looked after by) a family is what we all should have.
Ringgold’s comments about what she creates for whom put her children’s books into a new context for me. Seeing differently is always Ringgold’s aim. For women prisoners, she painted a mural focused on the life that they could, and indeed should, have. For children, she also creates visions of imagined worlds. These visions often include fantasy: Tar Beach and Aunt Harriet’s Underground Railroad in the Sky, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, involve her protagonist, Cassie, flying through time and space to see the world around them and how history has affected them.
But Ringgold’s books also encourage readers to think about seeing the world around them—as it is, and as it could be. In her fairytale set in the American south during slavery, The Invisible Princess, the reader (viewer) is instantly arrested by the cover illustration of the princess, with her large eyes and fantastic, halo-like cornrows. But in the story, only the plantation owner’s blind daughter can see the invisible, but very real, princess.
Ringgold did not write all the books she illustrated, but even the ones for which she did not provide the text have a focus on what can, and perhaps should, be seen if young people open their eyes to the world around them. In 2006, Ringgold celebrated the 50th anniversary of the publication of a book of children’s poetry by re-illustrating it, literally re-visioning it. Gwendolyn Brooks’s Bronzeville Boys and Girls (1956), a children’s book follow-up to her first adult collection, A Street in Bronzeville (1945), chronicled the lives of children in a working-class area of Chicago that had grown up as part of the Great Migration of African-Americans to the north of the US in the decades following emancipation. The poems in Bronzeville Boys and Girls do not seem on the surface highly radical; they are about ordinary things that most children experience—like, for example, what you can get away with doing when company comes over and your parents aren’t paying attention to you. But I would argue that this is one of the reasons why Ringgold chose to re-illustrate it, fifty years later. So many children’s books in the US about African-Americans resolutely ignore the ordinariness of African-American childhoods. Brooks in 1956 and Ringgold in 2006 asked readers to see the invisible. This part of Brooks’ and Ringgold’s vision may have been aimed primarily at adult buyers of the book; but there are specific poems that urge child readers to see the world, to look up and out, to re-vision. Perhaps one of the most obvious of these is in the poem, “Eldora, Who is Rich.” The poem opens with an expectation of what a rich girl looks like, someone with “a golden head” (Bronzeville Boys and Girls, n.p.). But Eldora, in the illustration by Ringgold, looks so much like the other children that until a reader completes the poem, it is not clear if the rich girl of the title is in it. Eldora, of course, is African-American and not white (or golden-headed) as the children expect. Change your expectations, Brooks and Ringgold argue. See differently. See new.
Audre Lorde once wrote, “I see protest as a genuine means of encouraging someone to feel the inconsistencies, the horror of the lives we are living. Social protest is saying that we do not have to live this way. If we feel deeply, and we encourage ourselves and others to feel deeply, we will find the germ of our answers to bring about change. Because once we recognize what it is we are feeling, once we recognize we can feel deeply, love deeply, can feel joy, then we will demand that all parts of our lives produce that kind of joy. And when they do not, we will ask, ‘Why don’t they?’ And it is the asking that will lead us inevitably toward change” (Black Women Writers at Work). Faith Ringgold’s art, for all ages, demand that we ask why that joy should not belong to everyone around us as well.